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New hemp operation takes root in Florence

Q&A with Rye Matthews

By Julia Purdy

Vermont Hydroponic Produce on Whipple Hollow Road in Florence has been acquired by Northeast Hemp Commodities, maker of Methodorganics health products. The landscape along the Castleton River now features acres and acres of neat rows of sprouted hemp plants emerging from their black plastic beds.

The Mountain Times caught up with owner Rye Matthews to learn more about this burgeoning industry.

Mountain Times: This was once a hydroponics operation raising tomatoes. When did you take over?

Rye Matthews: We’re one year old this year. We started out farm-based but have been building into the role of processors, offering services to other farmers in our industry. We’re processing and extracting CBD oil mostly for wholesalers. Methodorganics is our retail product line.

MT: Did you move in here then?

RM: Last year we were farming mostly in Forest Dale in Brandon and had one field in Middlebury. We leased the old Skyline Mobile Homes building in Fair Haven to do our drying. We trucked our plants down there and we happened to drive through here and saw the For Sale sign around Thanksgiving and right away we called the agent and came to take a look. It was an ideal location, great soil drainage important for growing hemp and closer to Fair Haven.

MT: What is your take on regulation?

RM: Every hemp grower across the state has to register with the Dept. of Ag because these crops look so similar to marijuana. We put down all the locations where all our fields are, the state has a database so anyone who wants to know where any particular fields are can call the Dept. of Ag and look through the database. The Dept. of Ag has regs that they have been operating under right now, but since the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, each state that wants to have their own regs separate from USDA has to put together a proposal to take to the USDA and get it approved. So Vermont came up with a draft and had stakeholder meetings to get comments, then they posted it publicly, and they had a round of public hearings around the state.

MT: An issue of concern is the difference between marijuana and hemp seed.

RM: Getting the right seed and genetics is the most important part of having a successful crop. The difference between marijuana and hemp: it used to be based on their characteristics, now it’s a legal definition since they passed the rule that hemp has 0.3 percent THC or less, marijuana has 0.3 percent or more. Buying those seeds, just looking at them you really have no idea. We’ve been buying our seed from out of state for that reason, because there are a couple of states that are farther ahead with the development of the industry and they have been registering seed producers and keeping track of that, and they have also been improving specific strains that are stabilized. We partnered up with a couple of these more established West Coast seed companies and we’re acting as an East Coast distributor for them and trying out a lot of the different varieties to see what works best here. That way we can start producing seed for Vermont.

MT: What states are those?

RM: Three that have been leading are Kentucky, Colorado and Oregon. Their departments of ag set up research programs right away and they really started trying to encourage the industry and trying to figure out the details like seed certification.

MT: So they could see the problem coming.

RM: They wanted to give farmers some structure so it’s not so chaotic. In Vermont the first couple of years it was much more wide open, where you had to register your name but that was basically it! It wasn’t until last year that the Legislature passed a bill that took that very thin program and said we need to update this and make it match more of what the federal government is expecting – the seed, inspection of crops, labeling of all the products is very important, so we’re finally getting there with that. We’ve been trying to self-regulate as best we can and let our products speak for themselves, which is OK but it’s not an even playing field.

MT: Is Vermont modeling its regulatory system after Kentucky and the other states?

RM: They’ve looked at what those states have done and they can pick and choose what worked in other states. They will be establishing a list of varieties and seed certification. They will also be approving testing labs. There are already facilities that can do this testing and they might be certified by a third party, but the state wants to get them all on the same protocol.

MT: Do you produce for seed also?

RM: Not yet. We’ve been gearing up for that, but it’s not something you jump into lightly. The seed production is the most complicated part of this and has the most liability, because you’re selling seed to other farmers, they’re spending a whole season’s worth of time and money on the crop and if it doesn’t turn out to be the right thing or as good as they thought it was, that can really wreck their reputation and their business. It can take many generations of hemp to develop something that is stable and high quality, and we didn’t want to rush into it.

MT: You sound like you’re pretty knowledgeable about all of this. What is your background?

RM: I grew up in Ferrisburgh on a small organic vegetable-cut flower farm. I fell in love with a dairy farmer’s daughter and got married, and I have been around their organic dairy for about 10 years. I went to UVM for environmental science, my concentration was ecological design. When the Farm Bill passed in 2014 [that established a pilot program for hemp], I started growing hemp as a hobby. There were no real hemp businesses yet, it was more research and collaboration with the UVM Extension. Eventually I started working for a Vermont hemp company. It was consulting, we were trying to push the industry forward through education.

MT: Is that where you learned about genetics?

RM: I had a strong background at UVM, with biology, chemistry, soil science, those kinds of things. As I got more into the industry I started to understand the nuances. There’s thousands of different kinds of hemp and over 100 cannabinoids that cannabis is capable of producing. CBD was the prominent one that people knew about, so they took some varieties that had CBD and crossed them with the low-THC traditional hemp to find the lucky one that had the characteristics you’re looking for. So now we have many more high-oil hybrid varieties. It’s pretty cool. People are still doing traditional hemp for seed and fiber but the market is really being driven by CDB oil. It’s an essential oil, very expensive stuff partly because the seed is special, seed costs a lot, everything costs a bit to do.

MT: Would it be analogous to sesame oil?

RM: CBD oil is not from seed, it’s a resin similar to an herb like rosemary extract or spearmint extract. The type of processing we’re doing is that extraction process, take the resin off the plant.

MT: How many acres do you have?

RM: We’re growing about 200 acres ourselves, 60 directly in this area, including the buildings. We have a piece on Route 4 towards Castleton and then in Clarendon.

MT: Do you worry about piracy?

RM: That is definitely something we pay attention to. We had maybe a dozen plants taken last year. It probably was kids who either think it’s marijuana or know it’s not but they want to pass it off as if it is, to make some money. That only works one time! I’ve heard throughout the state there were some issues where it seemed like some organized criminals were taking whole truckloads out of fields or barns. We have security cameras at all our locations, we put up signs that this is hemp, there’s no THC. We do what we can. They would have to be pretty organized.

MT: When I was here earlier, there were some people from Connecticut who were interested in buying seed to start their own operation.

TM: We do a lot of education and talks, trying to get the knowledge out to farmers so they can make informed decisions whether to do it or not. There’s a steep learning curve so we try to get them up to speed, getting the right plants in the first place is the most critical but there’s a lot more after that. The soils, growing and harvesting them, a lot of people underestimate the drying process. Some people think they can make a lot of money so they fill up every bit of land that they can, sink all their money in it, so by September they’re out of money. We’re trying to get information out to people to really take baby steps and get some experience with the whole process before you go into it on a big scale.

MT: How many people do you employ here?

RM: Around 20 full-time right now. Last year around harvest we went up to 50 temp workers for about a month and a half, but this winter we went down to our core group. We’re moving more towards mechanizing so those same 20 people can do a lot more. There’s not much specialized equipment for this yet. Every other crop out there has got decades of research and development for this exact machine, pickers and everything else.

MT: How do you harvest it?

RM: Last year we were cutting them all and hang-drying the whole plant. This year we talked to a bunch of farmers out West, they’re using some choppers with a special head on it, what it does is comb. We’re trying to pull the flowers off, separate the flowers from the stem. The stem is a byproduct that has a lot of uses, paper, animal bedding, different materials, that is slowly developing. Fiber is a contaminant once you go into making oils.

MT: What happens in the wintertime?

RM: We keep busy. This year we spent a lot of time going through the material we harvested, sifting out any stems. There is a market for people that want to buy just the flowers for use at home to mix with tobacco or marijuana. It’s not intoxicating but it has a soothing aroma. Then doing the actual oil processing. We’re also looking at doing some indoor crops, where people want just the flowers, so we can keep up when we have one outdoor harvest a year. These greenhouses grew our seedlings, then we planted out in the fields. We did over 300,000 seedlings in the greenhouses, about half to sell to other farmers. We only grow female plants. After about 4-6 weeks in the greenhouse they’re big enough to be transplanted in the fields. After the greenhouses have been cleaned out of all the seedlings we’re doing a crop for flowers in containers. We’re going to overhaul and insulate this place and then we would consider doing some off-season crops in here. We have more control in the greenhouse so we think we can do a premium crop.

Northeast Hemp Commodities leases 30 acres from a neighboring farm and is about to close on 10 acres that includes the buildings. It is surrounded by conserved wetland, owned by the Nature Conservancy.

RM: We started leasing over the winter and in April they let us come in and start making some renovations.

MT: How many greenhouses do you have?

RM: Five. We’re thinking about adding some more.

MT: What is that tepee-like structure we see?

RM: We have an agronomist, Pat Fifield, he’s a Middlebury native, grew up on his family’s dairy farm, did the crop management plans for over 50 farms in the Champlain Valley and has a huge amount of knowledge of the farming community, the soils, the cover crops. He came on full-time last summer. He lives in Middlebury but he has that tent because he comes around at all hours to keep an eye on the greenhouse.

MT: Is he your employee?

RM: I consider him a co-founder. He is paid by the company.

MT: Where do you live?

RM: I live up in Ferrisburgh. My wife and I bought some property on the edge of Middlebury, and we’re planning to build there next year.

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